Beside Rembrandt, Another Brush With Greatness

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008

Four years ago almost to the day, National Gallery curator Arthur Wheelock launched a fantastic show on the little-known Dutchman Gerard ter Borch. It led us to declare him a more important painter than his friend Johannes Vermeer.

Now Wheelock has launched the first-ever survey of Jan Lievens, an even more obscure Dutch artist. If you've actually heard of Lievens, it's likely because he was a momentary rival of the young Rembrandt, as the two launched their careers together in Leiden.

So has the Lievens show tempted us to declare him greater than the great Rembrandt?

Maybe not.

We wouldn't go further than to claim the artists tied. In their own day, at least, that's how things might have seemed.

Though Lievens, born in 1607, was a year younger than Rembrandt, he hit his stride first. This show includes a stunning, over life-size picture of an elderly woman that could have been painted as early as 1621 -- when Lievens was 13.

In the later 1620s, Constantin Huygens, the famous courtier and connoisseur, described the young geniuses as equals. "Rembrandt is superior to Lievens," Huygens wrote, "in his sure touch and liveliness of emotions. Conversely, Lievens is the greater in inventiveness and audacious themes and forms. . . . In painting the human countenance, he works miracles." It seems that Huygens tested them by getting the same subjects from both. Judging by this show, the almost unknown test-pictures by Lievens aren't obviously weaker than the very famous versions Rembrandt came up with.

Throughout his life Lievens won more big-name, international commissions than Rembrandt ever did. He was a favorite of the nobility, the clergy and the wealthy in Flanders, England, Germany and Holland. In the 1650s and '60s, he was honored with two of the commissions for the decoration of Amsterdam's grand new city hall. (It's now the Royal Palace of the Netherlands.) Lievens's pictures, for which he earned a mint, are still there; Rembrandt's single contribution to the project was so flawed his patrons took it down almost the moment it went up in 1662. (He died in poverty seven years later. Lievens, equally down on his luck at the end, outlived him by another five.)

Rembrandt himself appreciated Lievens's talent. He made etchings based on prints by Lievens -- the only colleague Rembrandt copied so directly. His paintings often come so near to works by Lievens that many pictures in this show have, at one point or another, been thought to be by Rembrandt. (During their Leiden years, they were in fact so close that they painted on planks from the same tree.) One fine drawing from the National Gallery's own collection is included in this show as a Lievens; Wheelock says his colleagues in the drawings department will probably reassign it to Rembrandt once the show is over. If so many "Rembrandts" have turned out to be by Lievens, could it be that the Rembrandtesque in general should in fact be rethought as a riff on Lievensism? It seems likely it was Lievens who first came up with some parts of the look Rembrandt later trademarked as his own.

A stunning "Raising of Lazarus" by Lievens, probably painted as one of those Huygens test pieces, may even be stronger than the version by his rival. Rembrandt liked the Lievens plenty: It hung above the mantel in his home.

Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered runs through Jan. 11 in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, on Constitution Avenue at Sixth Street NW. Call 202-737-4215 or visit http://www.nga.gov.

Six Reasons Why You Gotta Love Lievens

If "Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered" were a sales pitch for its hero, would it get you to buy? Here are half a dozen reasons why clients back then, and art lovers now, might pick Lievens over that other Leiden guy.

1. HIS PORTRAITS SING: Get Rembrandt to paint you, and you look like a Rembrandt. Not always a pretty sight. Choose Lievens, and you look like yourself -- only better. Lievens spent a couple of years in England, home of the great court portraitist and flatterer Sir Anthony van Dyck. The best painted portraits by Lievens, including several of himself, make his Dutch sitters look like English cavaliers. His finely finished portrait drawings are flattery, distilled.

2. HIS BRUSH IS SMART: Lots of Dutch artists could ladle on oils. Lievens had a way of doing it that set him apart. Rather than using his thick paint to indicate the play of light and shade across an object, he manipulated it to echo specific, material features of the things that he portrays. To render the stray, stiff hairs in an old man's beard, Lievens would drag the butt end of his brush through the wet paint. Whereas to render the newly brushed hair on a tow-headed little girl, he used a soft brush that left a row of tiny parallel ridges. To paint the spots of ink dripped from the pen of Saint Matthew, Lievens used brusque dabs from the broad tip of his brush. A fussier technique might have been more faithful to all the tiny details in a true splat of ink, but Lievens's boldness captures the idea of splashes better.

3. HIS FACES GET IN OURS: It seems Lievens and Rembrandt may deserve joint credit for inventing the peculiarly Dutch art of the character study, known as a "tronie." They both etched heads that weren't admired as portraits of known people, but as impressive life-studies of peculiar, anonymous types. When it came to painted tronies, though, Lievens had a trick all his own. He is one of the only artists, ever, to have scaled up such heads to larger than life-size. Like anything shown in a picture, his heads seem to sit behind the surfaces they're painted on. And yet they're so big they seem in front of them, too, and very much in your face. He gives his heads a presence that is hard to ignore.

4. HIS WOODCUTS RULE: At their best, Lievens's etchings rival Rembrandt's. But when it comes to woodblock prints, Lievens wins by default. That's because he is just about the only artist of his age to return to that antiquated medium. (Rembrandt never touched it.) Lievens seems to have realized that the jagged edges and heavy blacks that come from cutting into wood could give his images a unique expressive weight. A few trees in a woods, or a prelate sitting calmly on a chair, become potent forces thanks to Lievens's carving knife. It took almost another 400 years before some modern expressionists re-realized what woodcuts could do.

5. HIS LANDSCAPES STORM: Another Lievens innovation: Landscapes so vigorously brushed that you can barely tell a bunch of leaves from a clod of earth. The Dutch already had a taste for landscape as an independent art form, but that usually meant depicting nature that was picturesque. In landscapes by Lievens, it's the wild act of painting that carries the aesthetic weight; their subjects can be quite banal. At their most radical, Lievens's landscapes smack of impressionism, centuries before the term was coined.

6. HIS TRADEMARK IS NOT HAVING ONE: Whatever the occasion or commission, Rembrandt did his Rembrandt thing. Lievens, on the other hand, preferred to suit the medium to the message. Ask him to paint a "Sacrifice of Isaac" for a Catholic church in Flanders, and he could put on Italian airs worthy of Titian. Ask Lievens for a courtly allegory, and he throws in a hint of Rubens. Call for cardsharps and you get some Caravaggio. And, of course, when you need a picture of a solid Amsterdam burgher -- or even of an Old Testament sage -- Lievens could do the Rembrandt thing about as well as anyone. Including, sometimes, Rembrandt.

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